Perhaps it is little more than a political smokescreen, but there is reason for concern over Nicky Morgan’s announcement yesterday that developing ‘character, resilience and grit’ is the DfE’s new fifth priority. Whilst character development within schools is unquestionably important, Morgan’s belief that the Government can encourage it to happen meaningfully is not only optimistic, but also requires her to navigate dangerous obstacles.
1. Intangibility can lead to weak measures and perverse practice
Whatever meaning is decided upon for ‘character, resilience and grit,’ they remain intangible traits. Unlike academic learning, there is no way of measuring them accurately. If a school is not interested in developing the character of pupils, then little can be done to ensure it happens effectively. Creating an acronym like SMSC and making it a key focus of Ofsted inspections, will only increase the likelihood of it not happening on any meaningful level. There is a danger that problematic measures will be invented, meaningless boxes will be ticked, superficial lip service will be paid. Good schools inevitably create character through their ethos and structures which ingrain good habits, reward positive behaviours, encourage aspiration, offer varied opportunities and provide intellectual challenge. Their desire to create well-rounded pupils permeates everything they do. On the other hand, bad schools produce paperwork and play charades.
2. Character development is used to justify anti-academic ideas
Whilst Morgan may see a focus on character development as an expansion of Gove’s vision of academic rigour, there are others who see it as being in direct opposition. Rather than viewing character development as a complementary partner, or even something that might arise from an intellectually enriching school life, it is seen as the very antithesis of it, entirely incompatible. This was evident in the response of NASWUT general secretary Chris Keates, who suggested that developing character would require an unravelling of the Government’s previous reforms, as it couldn’t possibly be achieved with a ‘narrow academic’ focus in schools. Her choice language in discussing character development (‘independent learners,’ ‘teamwork’ and experiencing ‘democratic processes’) reflects the direction that the focus on character development has taken in recent history.
3. Character development is used to sell snake oil
Making character development an explicit or measurable goal threatens to energise an expensive snake oil marketplace that promises to create children more virtuous than virtue itself. Imaginably the scramble in Guy Claxton’s Ministry of BLP to produce more vacuous buzzwords to stick on classroom walls and distract teachers from teaching their actual subject was well underway before Morgan’s words had finished echoing around the room. Osiris’ two day ‘Developing Grit’ INSET for all school workers can presumably also be eagerly anticipated. If schools are held to account over character development in a superficial way then phony, costly strategies become pervasive in order to demonstrate something that in reality isn’t actually happening.
The way forward…
With £5 million pledged to researching innovation in developing character, resilience and grit, there seems to be some substance behind Morgan’s speech. The desire to ensure pupils receive a well-rounded education is admirable, however the way in which she goes about it and holds schools to account over it, is crucial. Character is cultivated. An attempt to teach it directly through a descendent of SEAL, PSHE, Citizenship or Learning to Learn would be a step backwards. Morgan’s speech yesterday suggested that rather than eroding academic curriculum time, she envisages character being developed through extra-curricular activities. Regardless, if she is to navigate this fifth priority successfully, Morgan should be wary of making something beautiful in theory, ugly in practice. A recent history of damaging ideas have hung off character development, she must proceed carefully in order not to pave the way for any more.